A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece titled “The Navy’s Debauchery Problem: An Enlisted Perspective,” which outlined concerns I had with the Navy’s culture and which you can read here. Some readers had strong and differing opinions on the matter. As a result, I’ve written some follow-up posts, the latest of which is below.
One matter I brought to the fore was a perceived gap in the treatment of enlisted sailors and officers regarding punishments rendered. If critical of the piece, former and current officers who commented and sent mail argued that members of the wardroom suffer more severe consequences for illegal, immoral, or incompetent actions than the enlisted do. Senator Tom Cotton said as much in his report, noting a “dominant and paralyzing zero-defect mentality” that rewards risk-aversion at the expense of having the most potent naval force possible.
Having observed commanding officers relieved of command for the great crime of looking at some risqué pictures on government computers while enlisted members routinely bring terabyte hard drives of the stuff on deployments, I think the officers’ point is understandable.
Zero tolerance removes nuance from proceedings. It forces superior officers to either dismiss unacceptable behavior because firing the officer in question is far too harsh a punishment or remove otherwise competent officers for singular infractions, harming naval readiness.
What I think drives much of the enlisted’s perception of officer immunity is that a sailor suffers “the lash” in public while an officer is “whipped” with a pen behind closed doors. In other words, a sailor who has transgressed will find himself before the entire chain of command, answering for his crimes and being sentenced. Never did I see something similar happen to an officer, and only rarely to the senior enlisted.
It is ironic that military superiors so often would quip “perception is reality” when upbraiding a sailor but balk when sailors wonder at why their supervisors don’t experience the same humiliating forms of punishment as they do.
There is an attractive middle ground here that allows officers to mess up while aiding his or her professional growth — public hearings. It would do the enlisted good to see their superiors held to account, communicating transparency and equality before the law, while simultaneously giving commanding officers a way to correct a junior officer’s actions without (apologies) torpedoing his or her career through an unsatisfactory evaluation.
Many sailors see the light after a bout of non-judicial punishment and have successful careers as Chiefs, LDOs, and Warrant Officers thereafter. Naval traditionalists may despise the suggestion, but cracking the wardroom door has many advantages.
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